Mask mandates in schools and daycares will continue in N.J., Murphy says
Students and teachers will continue to be required to wear masks inside New Jersey schools and daycare facilities because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday amid uncertainty over what will happen when that order and some of his other remaining emergency powers expire Tuesday.
Murphy didn’t provide any sense of how long the extension will continue.
“I want to be clear … that the mask mandates in schools and daycares will continue at least for the foreseeable future,” the governor said during his latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton. “These requirements give us no joy but are the only responsible course of action at this time.”
The comments come as Murphy weighs what to do as his remaining COVID-19 emergency powers and orders are set to sunset at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.
The Democratic governor had asked the Democratic-controlled state Legislature for a 90-day extension of the powers. But top state lawmakers decided last week they would let the majority of them lapse even though the state is in the midst of another big wave of the pandemic.
The Legislature made good on its promise Monday afternoon, when outgoing state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, declared neither house — the Senate or Assembly — would send Murphy any extensions at all.
The decision all but forces Murphy to declare another public-health emergency if he wants to keep the orders in place as New Jersey reports tens of thousands of new cases a day, hospitalizations reach levels not since April 2020, and a rising daily death rate amid a global surge driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Sweeney, who has often clashed with Murphy, had already told NJ Advance Media on Friday lawmakers wouldn’t grant the full extension because the state has to learn to live with the virus 22 months after the pandemic started, especially with vaccines now readily available.
Lawmakers were instead planning a resolution to extend some directives and waivers that aim to help hospitals care for patients for 45 days.
During Monday’s briefing, Murphy said he was “working very cooperatively” with legislative leaders to “make sure we’ve got a good path forward” amid the new surge.
But in one of his last moves as Senate president, Sweeney — who will leave office Tuesday having lost re-election — said later Monday it was “disrespectful” Murphy made his comments about the school mask mandate without “informing“ the Legislature, which was meeting down the street in Trenton on their final voting day of the current legislative session.
Thus, he said, lawmakers would not consider even the resolution related to hospitals.
Asked why lawmakers wouldn’t extend the mask mandate, Sweeney said: “There’s a lack of consistency when you tell the school districts you can decide whether you’re in Zoom or in person, but I’m gonna tell you what you do inside the building.”
“We can’t live this way for the next five years,” he added. “We have to find a way to live with this. … People will make their minds up.”
“The governor has the ability to deal with this, and I’m sure he will,” Sweeney said. “But I think what you’re gonna see is a Legislature that’s kind of exhausted.”
Asked why lawmakers wouldn’t at least extend the hospital orders, Sweeney said he is concerned about hospitals handling the surge but addd: “I think the health care systems know how to work with this.”
After more than a year of unilaterally installing orders to fight the pandemic, Murphy cut a deal with Democratic legislative leaders last June to end New Jersey’s public health emergency in an effort to give lawmakers more of a say. In exchange, the agreement allowed Murphy to keep a number of powers to continue managing the pandemic until Jan. 11 — over the objection of Republicans who said the governor’s control had already lasted too long.
Republicans on Monday staunchly opposed extending any of the orders. Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, said Murphy has not given the Legislature “the respect that it deserves.”